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An Introduction to Laos

laos_gibbon_experience_bokeo_3Poetically dubbed the “land of a million elephants”, the charming country of Laos is situated in the centre of the Indochina Peninsula. Bordered by China to the north, Myanmar to the northwest, Vietnam to the east and Cambodia to the south, Laos embodies everything that makes its neighbouring countries great.

You will be sure to find a warm welcome and broad smiles as you explore Laos and discover all that the country has to offer. Despite years of war and hardship, this former French colony has managed to retain its unique culture and stunning natural scenery. The pace of life here is gentle and as you explore you will be seduced by the chilled-out attitude of the people you meet.

Laos has only been part of the tourist trade for just over a decade, yet it has a lot to offer those with a strong sense of adventure. There are plenty of opportunities to get away from the tourist scene and discover the dense forests and wander along dusty back roads where you will be greeted by waving children and friendly families as you pass.

North-eastern Laos is still very underdeveloped and this is a great place to head if you want to escape the tourist scene and really get to know the country, while to the south you will find plenty of pretty islands and beaches and even the chance to view the elusive Kratie river dolphin.

However, there are several small towns and villages geared towards tourism, such as the enchanting village of Vang Vieng, where visitors are encouraged to relax with a good meal and a beer or two, surrounded by spectacular views of the limestone cliffs and sparkling river.

This is a great place to go trekking and explore the countryside, spending the night in a traditional village with a family. White water rafting, kayaking, rock-climbing and cycling are all popular, while to the south the Four Thousand Islands offer the perfect piece of paradise.

Travellers in Laos will never go hungry and there is a good range of dishes available for those with a sense of adventure. Lao food has been influenced by the French, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese and throughout Laos you will discover culinary delights such as French baguettes, spicy Thai salads and Vietnamese noodles. 

Laos is a good place to explore at any time, but it really comes alive during its festivals, especially the New Year and Rocket Festival. It’s a good idea to time your trip to coincide with one of these festivals as the streets are filled with singing and dancing and people put on their best clothes and biggest smiles.

Location and History of Malaysia


Location and History of Malaysia
Location and History of Malaysia
Location and History of Malaysia

Covering 329,847 square kilometres, Malaysia is situated in Southeast Asia and is bordered by Thailand, to the north, Indonesia and Singapore to the south, and Brunei and the Philippines to the east. Malaysia is divided into two separate land masses – known as Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo – by the South China Sea.

Malaysia has a tropical climate, with a hot summer and intense rainy season. With forest and mountain ranges running through the country from north to south, there are mangrove swamps and mudflats on the west coast, which separate into bays and inlets. There are a number of beautiful beaches on the west coast as well as dense forests to explore.

Malaysia’s modern history dates back to the 2nd century AD, when there were a collection of up to 30 separate Malay kingdoms. The Malay kingdoms gained power and riches as costal city ports, which were established in the 10th century. Originally Hindu or Buddhist states, Islamic found a place in Malaysia in the 14th century.

The Sultanate of Malacca was established at the start of the 15th century by prince Parameswara, from Palembang, who fled to the area from what is now known as Singapore. Prince Parameswara turned Malacca into an important trading port, putting Malaysia firmly on the map. However, Malacca was conquered by Portugal in 1511 and a Portuguese colony was established there.

In 1786 Britain established a colony in the Malay Peninsula, with the British East India Company leasing the island of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty was signed in 1824, which divided the Malaya archipelago between Britain and the Netherlands.

Although there were Malaysian figureheads, the British mostly ruled Malaysia until the Japanese occupation during WWII. The Federation of Malaya was established in 1948, which reinstated the independence of the rulers of the Malay states under British protection.

From 1948 to 1960 the Communist Party of Malaya embarked on a guerrilla campaign known as the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to 1960 to force the British out of Malaya. Independence for the Federation within the Commonwealth was finally granted on 31 August 1957, and the Federation was renamed Malaysia in 1963.

At first there was much fighting with Indonesia over boundary lines, culmination in the racial riots of 1969. The New Economic Policy was established to restore peace to the country and since then Malaysia’s various ethnic groups have lived more or less in harmony.  

These days Malaysia’s economic and social structures are good and the country’s affluence can be seen in modern structures such as Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers and the Sepang F1 Circuit.

Western Cambodia

Western Cambodia
Western Cambodia

This picturesque region of Cambodia stretches from the capital city of Phnom Pehn to the Thai border. The area is marked by two dramatic mountain ranges, namely the Cardamom Mountains located in the southwestern corner and the Dangrek Range to the north.

There are a number of picturesque villages located in this region of Cambodia, especially in amongst the Cardamom Mountains. Although not many travellers visit western Cambodia, those that do will find waterfalls, caves and traditional villages, where the way of life has stayed more or less the same for centuries.

This is a great place to rest and unwind away from the tourist scene. Although you won’t find many bars or beaches in this area, there is still plenty to do. Hike through the forest, discover traditional craft skills at tribal villages and take a boat trip from Battambang to Siem Reap.

Pursat, Cambodia

Pursat, Cambodia
Pursat, Cambodia
Pursat, Cambodia

This picturesque and peaceful town is a great place to unwind for a while and it serves as a base for those wishing to explore the stunningly beautiful Central Cardamoms Protected Forest. Pursat is also a transit point Battambang and Phnom Penh and this is a pretty place to pause and slow the pace a little as you travel between the two cities.

One of Pursat’s most famous features is its marble carvers, and visitors will have the chance to watch local craftsmen honing their skills in various workshops as they explore and it is even possible to purchase finished pieces to take home as gifts and souvenirs.

The floating village of Kompong Luong is a great place for a day trip. Situated on the mighty Tonle Sap Lake, this is a pretty place to explore and watch the fishermen at work. There are also a number of good restaurants here serving fresh fish and traditional Khmer dishes.
 
Another good day trip destination is Nhek Ta Khleang Moeung, where people travel to of worship the spirit of Nhek Ta and ask for his assistance. The site is situated 3 miles from Pursat and is a particularly pleasant walk.

Slightly further away, the sacred site of Baktra is also worth visiting. Climb the high hill for spectacular views of the area and see the pretty forest stream and natural wells. For an alternative way to see the countryside, take a trip on the traditional bamboo railway before returning to Pursat for a good meal in one of the local restaurants.

As you explore the area you will discover a number of pretty waterfalls, which are the perfect place to cool down after hiking in the heat of the day. In the evening, join the local people who gather in the small park near the bridge to enjoy the cool river breeze and relaxed atmosphere.

Anlong Veng, Cambodia

Anlong Veng, Cambodia
Anlong Veng, Cambodia
Anlong Veng, Cambodia

Anlong Veng is famous – or rather infamous – as being the home of Khmer Rouge Brother Number One Pol Pot as well as other leaders such as Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan and Ta Mok. The little town is close to the border crossing of Choam–Choam Srawngam, and this is a good place to enter Thailand if you want to avoid the crowds and general hustle and bustle at Poi Pet.

Exercise caution when exploring this area as there are still a large number of unexploded landmarks in the countryside around the town. Make sure you stick to the clearly marked paths and if in doubt hire a guide to show you the sights.

Most people visit Anlong Veng to discover more about Cambodia under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Those who are interested in the life of former leader Pol Pot will be able to take a motorcycle ride through paddy fields to get here. Although the house itself is a bit of a let down, the ride is worthwhile as it takes visitors past the picturesque Damrek Mountains.

Next, take a short walk to Ta Mok’s mountain house, which offers stunning views of the surrounding area from is lofty position. Those who want to spend the night here will find a comfortable guesthouse nearby. Afterwards, take a short trip to Ta Mok’s town house, which is set overlooking a large lake. The house was built by Tak Mok himself and contains a number of large murals depicting scenes of Preah Vihear and Angkor Wat.

Pol Pot’s grave is also located in the town of Anlong Veng, although it is a fairly modest construction, complete with wire from old tires and a rusting metal roof. There is a small shrine nearby, which was put up by someone from Thailand after they had a dream in which Pol Pot appeared to them with the winning lottery numbers. Even in death, Pol Pot’s legend lives on in its own bafflingly bizarre way.

Local people often tend to gather at the manmade Anlong Veng Lake to do a spot of fishing, and this is also a good place to swim or take a boat out. Those who are feeling a bit peckish can buy food from the snack stalls that can be found near the lake and enjoy a picnic while soaking up the scenery.

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

The small city of Siem Reap is the best place to stay if you intend to visit the Angkor Wat complex. There are a number of good places to stay, restaurants offering a wide variety of international cuisine and bars to hang out in the evening.

Before you visit Angkor, stop by Miniature Replicas, where you will see sculptures of all the temples situated in a lovely garden. This is a good way to get an idea of how much there is to see and plan your time accordingly. There are also a number of modern temples situated around Siem Reap, such as Wat Bo with its beautiful paintings and former royal palace Wat Dam Nak, which provide an interesting contrast to the wonders of Angkor.

Angkor Wat is a major symbol in Cambodia; it appears on the flag, on coins, posters and just about anything else you can name. The site was reopened in 1991 after nearly two decades of closure due to civil unrest. The best way to start a tour of Angkor is to visit Phnom Bakheng in time for sunset. Not only is admission free, but you can get your pass made, avoiding the crowds the next day.

Get up early the following day and hire a moto with a driver for the day so that you can travel in style. Head straight to Angkor Thom, which is surrounded by a vast moat, before moving on to the Terrace of the Elephants, which is over 300 metres long.

The next temple to visit is the enchanting jungle temple of Preah Khan, while the nearby Neak Pean is a symbol of the lake that lies at the top of the universe.

It is best to allow around four hours to see Angkor Wat properly, so perhaps devote the following day to exploring this magnificent temple. According to records, it took around 30 years to complete Angkor Wat, which measures an impressive 65 metres and covers some 500 acres.

The mighty Wat is built on several levels. The Gallery features 1,000 Buddhas where Buddha effigies of all descriptions line the corridors, while the temples picture galleries display scenes from Hindu epic texts the Ramayana, the Battle of Kurukshetra, and other epic scenes such as the Judgement of Heaven and Hell. 1,500 apsaras or ‘heavenly dancing girls’ wonderfully decorate the second level interior.

Now it is time to screw up you courage and climb to the very summit of the top level, which is a privilege that was originally reserved for the High Priest and the King. 480 steep steps lead up to the five towers, which lie waiting like the Holy Grail at the end of a virtuous quest. Ascend the 70 degree angled steps carefully and walk around the outer gallery, enjoying the magnificent view, which is incredible from all angles. Watch the sun set before slowly descending once more.

Most people find it difficult to leave Siem Reap and you need to allow at least through days to explore thoroughly.

Phnom Pehn, Cambodia

Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
Phnom Pehn, Cambodia

Cambodia’s capital city is loud, dirty and rather violent on first glance, earning it the reputation as a ‘rough city’. However, scratch the surface and you will find plenty of pretty places to walk, good restaurants and interesting buildings. Although the residents are not as warm and welcoming as in the countryside, many people are willing to provide much needed advice and a friendly face.

Phnom Penh was largely destroyed during the time of the Khmer Rouge and is slowly being restored to its former glory. Also known as Riverside, Sisowath Quay is a pretty avenue running along the banks of the Mekong River and is an interesting place to walk in the evening when dozens of stalls set up selling everything from good meals to cheap souvenirs.

According to popular legend, the city was founded in the 14th century by an old woman named Penh who discovered a tree with a handful of Buddha images wedged in a niche. She recovered the images and had a hill – phnom in the Khmer language – built to contain them. The city grew from there into the sprawling metropolis it is today.  

A tour of Phnom Penh should lead you straight to the Royal palace with its Silver Pagoda and temple of the Emerald Buddha. Also known as Wat Preah Keo Morokat, the entire floor of the Silver pagoda is covered with over 5,000 silver tiles, each weighing 1 kilo. Inside is the Emerald Buddha, which was crafted from baccorant crystal and is one of Cambodia’s most famous images.

Opposite, the National Museum is home to some impressive Khmer sculptures, including many pieces previously at Angkor. This is a good place to get a feel for the ancient art work and various styles. Climb a hill at the centre of a small park near Sisowath Quay for spectacular views and to visit Wat Phnom with its resident monkeys.

To get an idea for the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, many people take a day trip to the Killing Fields, which are located at Cheoung Ek, about 17 kilometres south of Phnom Penh. Now peaceful, this is the place where the Khmer Rouge killed several thousands of their victims and visitors can explore the Buddhist stupa which is filled with human skulls.  

Another gruesome reminder is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is the actual school building that the Khmer Rouge leaders converted to a prison. The museum contains a number of graphic photographs detailing the brutality and handwritten accounts by a few of the survivors.

On a lighter note, taking a cruise on the Mekong River is a great way to see the area, and many tour companies offer sunset dinner cruises. Before you leave Phnom Pehn visit Mekong Island and watch the traditional weaving.

In additional to the city’s many bars and nightclubs, evening entertainment is provided by the French Cultural Centre, who show regular movies.

Northern Cambodia

Northern Cambodia
Northern Cambodia

Most of Cambodia’s tourist attractions are located in the north of the country. Not only is the national monument of Angkor Wat located here, but also the nearby vibrant town of Siem Reap. Just a short distance away is the capital city of Phnom Penh, which contains a wide range of attractions as well as good restaurants and places to stay.

Visitors to the northern region of Cambodia will find plenty to see and do. There are two major border crossings in the area, allowing visitors to cross travel into Cambodia from the neighbouring country of Laos or from Thailand via the notorious casino town of Poipet.

Before you visit Angkor Wat, take the time to travel through the countryside and visit some of the other ancient temples, many of which predate the magnificent temple complex. Climb to the top of Sambor Prei Kuk and hike through the dense forest surrounding Pursat

Located in amongst the Damrek Mountains, Anlong Veng is the home town of a number of Khmer Rouge leaders such as Pol Pet and Nuon Chea. Explore this town to discover the houses of the two men and wander through the picturesque landscape.

Beung Kan, Thailand

Beung Kan, Thailand
Beung Kan, Thailand
Beung Kan, Thailand

Situated in Nong Khai Province to the northeast of Thailand, Beung Kan makes a good stopping off point on the way to Laos. This is a quieter alternative to the interesting yet sometimes overwhelming bustling city of Nong Khai. Baung Kan may be quaint, dusty and slightly sleepy, but there is still plenty here for the adventurous to see and do.

A great attraction is the temple of Wat Phu Tok. This temple features six levels of steps, which can be slightly difficult to climb in the heat of the day – it is best to visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon. However, the spectacular views over the surrounds countryside from the top more than make up for the effort. This is a absolutely enchanting place, and people are offered the opportunity to get to know it better by staying overnight in one of the dormitories.

A pleasant day trip from Beung Kan is the charming little town of Sangkhom, which looks out on the Lao island of Don Klang. This is the home of several beautiful flowing waterfalls such as Nam Tok Than Thip and Nam Tok Than Thong, which is a great place for swimming and cooling down after a hike through the countryside.

Whilst there, make sure that you check out the pretty little temple of Wat Pa Tak Sua, which is located 4 kilometers from the town and another great hiking destination. Another point of interest is Wat Silawat. Beung Kan, a great place to hire a bicycle and go exploring or go trekking to.

This peaceful village is also a good place to be lazy for a few days and just soak up the stunning scenery, fresh air and tranquility. There are a few local guesthouses where you can indulge in delicious Thai food and practice the simple art of doing nothing.

Ubon, Thailand

Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand
Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand
Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand
Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand

Ubon Ratchathani Province is located in the southeast of the Isan region of Thailand. The capital city bears the same name, but is more commonly known as Ubon. The name means Royal Land Lotus Blossom in the Thai language and refers to the exceptional natural beauty of the area.

The city, which sits on the northern bank of the Mun River, was originally founded in the late 18th century by Lao immigrants and still retains many aspects of Lao style and culture. For an insight into the rich and interesting history of this area, pay a visit to the Ubon National Museum.

Ubon Ratchathani is best loved for its stunning national parks. No visit is complete without seeing the spectacular Phu Chong Na Yoi National Park, which covers an area of 687 square kilometers, featuring stunning views from the cliffs at Pha Pheung and the huge Bak Tew Yai Waterfall.

Another area of great beauty is the Kaeng Tana National Park and don’t miss the Pha Taem National Park with its pre-historic cliff paintings showing scenes of fishing, rice farming, figures of people and animals.

There are many beautiful waterfalls in the area, and it is possible to swim in the clear waters of most. Some of the best include Nam Tok Saeng Chan, Nam Tok Thung Na Muang and the magnificent Nam Tok Soi Sawan.

It goes without saying that there are many interesting temples to explore, embodying design features of both Lao and Thai temple art. Look out for Wat Tung Si Muang, Wat Supattanaram, the rectangular chedi of Wat Phra That Nong Bua, Wat Si Ubon Rattanaram and many others.

Koh Hat Wat Tai is a small island in the Mae Nam Mun which is great for swimming and sunbathing. Another attraction in the area are the Warin Chamrap District Temples. These are two temples where people from all over the world gather to study meditation. Wat Nong Pa Phung is reserved for Thai people, while Wat Pa Nanachat is for non-Thais.

The silk weaving village of Wat Nong Bua is located 18 kilometers from the city and makes a great day trip, while many people travel to ride the Kaeng Saphue rapids or take a boat trip on the turbulent white waters.

Ubon has a large night market, which is a great place to get a cheap meal and buy some local produce.

If you are in the area during the festival of awk hansaa in July, make sure you stay for the Candle Festival, when processions of wax religious images are carried through the city on floats.